This is a Quiet Area

JUST AS THE Ardennes offensive was a huge risk for the Germans, its defence was an equal risk for the Allies. On his way from his headquarters to a 7 December conference in Maastricht to decide Allied policy, Eisenhower drove through the Ardennes and immediately noticed how few GIs he encountered en route, a fact he drew to Bradley’s attention. The latter justified the thinly held sector by stating he could not reinforce the woodland region without weakening his concentrations in the Roer or Saar. Bradley was gambling on a thin defence of the central Ardennes in order to concentrate Hodges’ First Army in the north, ready to punch through to the Roer and the Rhine beyond, at the same time assembling Patton’s Third Army to the south, likewise ready to push into the Saar and deep into the Fatherland. It is easy to sympathise with the Twelfth Army Group’s commander and difficult to conceive of an alternative policy he might have taken, without jeopardising the two decisive break-in battles to German territory he was about to launch.1

The Maastricht policy meeting, held at Simpson’s US Ninth Army headquarters, had in fact been demanded by Montgomery who remained unhappy with Allied strategy and was still determined to have his say and push Eisenhower into backing another of his narrow thrusts into Germany, as opposed to Ike’s stated broad-front strategy. A Monty ‘victory’ in realigning Eisenhower’s strategy would be at the expense of Bradley’s impending Roer attack and that of Patton into the Saar. Thus, there may be merit in the argument advanced by some that Bradley’s eyes were so firmly fixed on countering the threat from Montgomery that his gaze was averted from the Ardennes, despite the concerns of Ike and Strong at SHAEF. The resultant ‘soggy centre’, relatively devoid of GIs, was what Middleton’s VIII Corps, with the US 28th Infantry Division to his front, were defending.

Omar Nelson Bradley had turned fifty-one when he was elevated to command 12th US Army Group – as noted earlier, the largest force ever wielded by a US commander. The ‘GI’s General’ (as war correspondent Ernie Pyle dubbed him and he liked to be known) was the epitome of the American dream, being born in a log cabin in Missouri, the only surviving child of a schoolteacher who died when he was fourteen. Bradley entered West Point in 1911 and graduated with his classmate Dwight Eisenhower in 1915; the pair were then obliged (and frustrated) to sit out the First World War in the States. His lucky inter-war career brought him into contact with all the US Army’s future leaders. In September 1920 he began a four-year tour of duty as chief weapons instructor at West Point where Douglas MacArthur was Superintendent; he graduated second from the Advanced Infantry Course, behind Leonard Gerow, later V Corps commander; his next appointment, to the Hawaiian Division, brought him into contact with George S. Patton (the divisional G-2) and after Command and General Staff College, Bradley was posted as chief weapons instructor at the Infantry School in 1929, where the Assistant Commandant was George C. Marshall.

Marshall’s personal teaching, in part through the informal seminars he conducted for his staff, and the stimulating company of a group of officers devoted to the study of their profession, created a group of future commanders on whom he would come to rely. They included ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, Walter Bedell Smith (future SHAEF chief of staff), Matthew Ridgway and J. Lawton Collins. In February 1941, as the US Army was expanding in anticipation of war, Marshall (now army chief of staff) promoted Bradley to brigadier-general (the first of his West Point class to achieve one-star rank), over the heads of many, and sent him to Fort Benning to command the Infantry School. There, Bradley devised the officer candidate school (OCS) model that would serve as a prototype for similar schools across the army. When war came, they would turn out the thousands of platoon commanders needed in an army that eventually fielded eighty-nine divisions; they were known as ‘Ninety Day Wonders’ after their three-month OCS courses that resulted in a commission.

Two months after Pearl Harbor, Bradley took command of the 82nd Infantry Division. Within four months, at Marshall’s behest, he had relinquished the 82nd to Matthew Ridgway (who later converted them to the airborne formation they remain today) and soon found himself in North Africa working for Eisenhower, whom he had occasionally seen but not served with since West Point. This was in the aftermath of the Kasserine Pass debacle, where American units had performed poorly against their more experienced German opponents and received severe criticism from neighbouring British commanders; his task was to serve as Eisenhower’s eyes and ears. Ike appointed Bradley as Patton’s deputy with the result that when Patton left to plan the Sicily invasion, Bradley took command of II Corps in Tunisia and Sicily.

Afterwards, Ike wrote to Marshall: ‘He [Bradley] is in my opinion the best-rounded combat leader I have yet met in our service. He possibly lacks some of the extraordinary and ruthless driving power that Patton can exert at critical moments, [but] he still has such force and determination that even in this characteristic he is among our best.’ By this time, Bradley had more combat experience than any other corps commander and this won him command of US First Army for Normandy. On 1 August he assumed command of the twenty-one divisions of US Twelfth Army Group, comprising some 903,000 men, handing First Army to Courtney Hodges but retaining the pick of his First Army staff at his new headquarters.2

The bulk of American forces that absorbed the initial German attack comprised Middleton’s overstretched VIII Corps of Hodge’s First Army. From 4 October, Middleton was based in Bastogne at the Caserne Heintz, built for the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais(the local infantry unit), and subsequently used as barracks for the Hitler Youth. His 68,822 men covered a front of about eighty-five miles, three times the recommended frontage for a corps in 1940s US doctrine. His corps was so extended that he was forced to commit to the front not only his three infantry divisions, but his reconnaissance cavalry and one combat command of 9th Armored, leaving himself with almost no immediate reserves. He had placed the 106th Division, headquartered in St Vith, in the northern part of his front, Major-General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota’s 28th in the centre, while Combat Command ‘A’ (the equivalent of a brigade) of the 9th Armored and ‘Tubby’ Barton’s 4th Infantry Division covered the south.

Troy Houston Middleton had turned fifty-five in December 1944, the same age as Hitler. His seniority, maturity and experience would count for a great deal in the coming days, for he possessed unrivalled combat experience. George C. Marshall described him as ‘the outstanding infantry regimental commander on the battlefield in France’ of the earlier world war. A Mississippian by birth, Middleton had enlisted in the tiny US Army as a private in 1910 and was selected for officer training two years later. It was his outstanding war record in 1918 that brought him to wide attention; initially he served as a battalion commander with the 4th ‘Ivy’ Division in the Second Battle of the Marne. Aged twenty-nine, he then commanded a regiment during the Meuse–Argonne offensive, received a Distinguished Service Medal and was promoted to full colonel. After the war he attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth with fellow classmate George S. Patton; Middleton graduated eighth out of 200, Patton came fourteenth.


There was a time in 1944 when nearly every divisional and most corps commanders in Europe had been students of Troy Middleton (1889–1976), the outstanding instructor of his generation at the Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth. One of his star pupils was Eisenhower, who finished first in his year. Middleton had enlisted in the US Army as a private in 1910 and risen via battalion and regimental command to full Colonel in 1918, but quit the military in 1937. Recalled after Pearl Harbor, he was promoted to command VIII Corps in early 1944, taking it to Normandy and the Bulge. Those who had served with him in combat knew him to be tough and unflappable – as his determination to hold on to Bastogne at all costs proved. (NARA)

Asked to stay on as an instructor, one of Middleton’s star students was Eisenhower who, as we have noted, finished first in his year. At one stage in 1944, nearly every divisional and most corps commanders in Europe had been students of his. Middleton progressed on to War College in 1928 and was generally very well liked in the small, almost collegiate, inter-war US Army. However, with the prospects of high command remote and the offer of a lucrative job in the administration of Louisiana State University, he quit the military in 1937. After Pearl Harbor, he was recalled to service in early 1942, commanded the 45th Infantry on Sicily and was promoted to command VIII Corps in early 1944, taking it to Normandy. His steel-rimmed spectacles accentuated the appearance of an elderly college professor, but those who had served with him in combat knew Middleton to be tough and unflappable. He knew all his fellow commanders from previous service and, despite his four years out of the US Army, he was one of the most experienced and well regarded combat leaders it had.3

Middleton’s corps G-2 in Bastogne, Colonel Andrew Reeves, had actually identified five of the twelve divisions belonging to Fifth and Seventh Armies which were shortly to attack them, including two of the panzer divisions. Sounds of German traffic were reported opposite several division sectors, but the defenders were persuaded that these were incoming units replacing others being moved out. Shallow patrolling, the capture of few prisoners, including several deserters, and repeated entries of ‘no change’ in divisional G-2 reports confirmed the tendency throughout VIII Corps of passive intelligence collection, accompanied by repeatedly inadequate analysis of the threat. This menace would eventually translate into an eight-to-one advantage in infantry and a four-to-one advantage in tanks for the Germans opposing the US VIII Corps. Middleton’s troop strength amounted to the equivalent of roughly one soldier for every two yards of front.4

They assumed, but could not prove, their opponents were merely doing what the US Army did – using a quiet area to rest tired formations or bring in new ones, giving them a chance to experience front-line life in a relatively safe zone, before being committed to battle elsewhere. On 9 December, Reeves circulated his G-2 estimate that their opponents’ ‘present practice of bringing new divisions to this theatre to receive front line experience and then relieving them out for commitment elsewhere indicates [their] desire to have this sector of the front remain quiet and inactive’.5 VIII Corps G-2’s retained a mental outlook that their opponents did not possess the manpower or material superiority to conduct a major offensive, reflecting the prevailing view, in the words of GI James Madison, that ‘the German troops facing us were of low quality and appeared to be of the opinion that if we didn’t bother them, they would leave us alone’.6

Indeed, it was so relaxed that one night, just before the Bulge began, Private Friedrich Schmäschke of the opposing 352nd Volksgrenadiers, found himself with a small squad trying to repair a little generator powered by the waters of the River Our. ‘Suddenly we heard voices nearby calling “hello boys!” For a moment we were confused to find Americans facing us. We heard something about “no shooting” but since none of us except the engineer understood English, this meeting with our opposite numbers was extremely brief. After a short chat, we exchanged cigarettes and hastily and mistrustfully parted from each other.’ They were so worried about being punished for this fraternisation, Schmäschke remembered, that ‘On the advice of one of our men, the cigarettes were taken out of their packs and the empty packs were thrown away or buried.’7

Cavalry groups of National Guardsmen were attached to each US Army corps, and Middleton had inserted his into a vulnerable gap on the boundary of V and VIII Corps, the five-mile Losheim Gap. Colonel Mark A. Devine’s 14th Cavalry Group comprised the 32nd and 18th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons, each a battalion-sized unit of thirty-eight officers, three warrant officers and 700 enlisted men equipped with M-8 armoured cars and M-5 Stuart light tanks. Devine was a disciplinarian, ‘not wholeheartedly accepted by members of his command’, who always insisted his men, vehicles and equipment be meticulously clean and, like Montgomery, frowned on anyone smoking in his presence. His place was normally ahead of VIII Corps, providing forward reconnaissance, screening, flank guards, security and liaison. In other words, the Cavalry Group would normally be one of the key sources of intelligence for General Middleton. However, in the Ardennes, due to the widespread shortage of infantry, Devine’s Cavalry Group, with 14th Squadron deployed forward and 32nd in reserve, were employed out of their customary role, in defending terrain, and unable to contribute much to the corps G-2 picture. While not exactly veterans, the group had landed in France during September and had seen two months of combat opposite the Westwall, from 20 October; however, they had little density of manpower to provide defence in depth, though far greater mobility than ordinary infantry units.

Of Middleton’s other formations, the 4th Infantry Division was one of the most experienced in the US Army, having hit Utah Beach at H-Hour on 6 June. Possessing an impressive record from the First World War, the Ivy Division (wordplay on the Roman numerals ‘IV’ for four) had sailed out of New York on 18 January 1944 for its second European war. For the twenty-one consecutive days after D-Day, the 4th, led by Major-General Raymond ‘Tubby’ Barton, had pushed inland, capturing Cherbourg but at heavy cost. Breaking out of the beachhead, the ‘Ivymen’ helped liberate Paris, raced through northern France and Belgium, then moved into the Hürtgen Forest in November, which they soon dubbed the ‘Death Factory’. While there, the division again suffered high losses, Colonel Buck Lanham’s 22nd Infantry Regiment sustaining a mind-numbing 2,678 casualties in eighteen days – 82 per cent of its authorised strength of 3,257 officers and men. Ernest Hemingway accompanied the 4th, an inspirational figure for the future novelist J. D. Salinger, who at that time was a staff sergeant, responsible for interrogating prisoners. As one of Salinger’s comrades recalled, ‘The 4th Division anchored the southern hinge of the Bulge in Luxembourg. Its Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) team numbered about fourteen men, six of whom were located in pairs at each of the three regimental command posts. One of these pairs included Jerry (J. D.) Salinger, who was fluent in French and German.’8

‘My mental anguish was beyond description,’ Lanham wrote of this time just before the Bulge. ‘My magnificent command had virtually ceased to exist … these men had accomplished miracles … my admiration and respect for them was … transcendental.’9Hemingway, who spent eighteen days under fire in the Hürtgen, later wrote that Lanham was ‘the finest and bravest and most intelligent regimental commander I have ever known’. One of Lanham’s battalion commanders, Swede Henley, remembered Hemingway: ‘He stayed with me in my command post in the front lines in the rain, sleet and snow … He carried two canteens – one of schnapps, and the other of cognac.’ The writer later fictionalised some of his Hürtgen experiences in his 1950 novel Acrossthe River and into the Trees.10 Hemingway’s room-mate and fellow correspondent William Walton published an article on the awfulness of the Hürtgen in Life magazine on 1 January 1945, featuring Lanham and Henley, which concluded: ‘The only way we can get this thing [the war] over is by killing Krauts.’11 With many green replacements, Lieutenant George Wilson of Company ‘F’ in Lanham’s regiment worried at how inexperienced his company had become by mid-December – and ‘With only four officers and eighty-four men, the company was eighty men short of full strength as well’.12 The whole of Barton’s division was understrength by 2,678 casualties when they deployed to the Ardennes to lick their wounds, taking over positions vacated by the US 83rd Division.

Just before they vacated the area taken over by the 4th Division, Colonel Edwin B. Crabill’s 329th Infantry of the 83rd Division in Echternach had a special visitor. She was the former fashion model-turned-acclaimed (and glamorous) war correspondent-photographer Lee Miller, who had followed their war earlier for Vogue. Her pen portrait gives us a sense of the oasis of calm in the Ardennes sector: ‘The Siegfried Line was just landscape to the unaided eye,’ the thirty-seven-year-old Miller wrote in October. ‘Through the glasses I could see luscious flat lawns like putting greens. They were the fire areas between the black mushrooms which were gun emplacements – a tank trap accompanied by a gun was at a crossroads and on the horizon was a village which they said was housing two divisions of retreated Huns.’ The following day Miller witnessed ‘the whole valley echoed with the boom, bark, tattoo and cough of different styles and sizes of weapons’ as her companions patrolled the terrain by jeep searching for refugees ‘who didn’t match the landscape, as they could easily be and often were disguised Krauts’. She later observed, ‘Some Tank Destroyer men said they’d been talking and thought it was very good to have me around, as they minded their four-letter language.’13

It was only after the Hürtgen, when his unit arrived in Manternach, Luxembourg, on 8 December, that Donald Faulkner in Company ‘E’ of Lanham’s 22nd Infantry took his first bath ‘since leaving the USA on 15 September’. It was just a tub in a bombed-out house, fed with hot water from a nearby stove; ‘I took off my boots and jumped into the tub, muddy clothes and all.’14 John H. Kunkel, in Company ‘L’ of 22nd Infantry, remembered how they all discovered body lice on leaving the forest; the best method to remove the offending creatures was with an old sock dipped into an upturned helmet full of kerosene. By that point, Kunkel recalled, ‘we all smelled like Billy goats’.15 Many of the 4th had been evacuated from sheer combat fatigue to the 622nd Exhaustion Centre near Eupen, where ‘they were injected with enough sodium amytal to keep them sleeping for three days, being woken up only for food and in order to carry out their bodily functions. At intervals they were given saline intravenous injections.’16Nevertheless, the Hürtgen had taught them much about fighting in wintry woodland against their foes, which would pay off shortly.

Major Frederick T. Kent, the 22nd Regiment’s S-4 (logistics and supply officer) had been able to reflect on the lessons of the November battle, and his succinct observations written afterwards betray some of the awful problems his unit had suffered in the forest, ‘… in woods fighting, where artillery and mortar fire is more than normally effective, communications facilities must be reinforced to prevent the possibility of a complete breakdown … a unit should be removed from the line when excessive casualties have been suffered, and reinforcements integrated and trained before the unit goes back into combat … fragment-proof overhead cover is essential if casualties are to be minimised … the effectiveness of armour in woods is greatly reduced … the determination of the individual soldier to continue fighting under the worst conditions is the most important factor contributing to success’.17 Experience like this counted and would save lives in the Ardennes.

Barton had responsibility also for Luxembourg City, where he knew German agents circulated among the German-speaking local population. This offered abundant opportunities for contact with GIs in bars, which the US Counter Intelligence Corps and OSS could do little to prevent.18 In September the Allies had recaptured the powerful radio transmitters of Radio Luxembourg at Junglinster, which broadcast all over Europe. When they could wrestle airtime away from the US Army (‘The Voice of SHAEF’) playing forces requests and information messages to loyal civilian listeners, the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE) and Psychological Warfare Branch of the US Office of War Information (OWI) created Nachtsender 1212, a ‘black’ propaganda station. ‘Black’ referred to a disguised source, in this case the station pretended to be ‘Radio Annie’, broadcasting from within the Reich. Waveband 1212 proved popular with the Wehrmacht and German civilians alike, transmitting music and news between 02.00 and 06.30 a.m., but interspersing true information reports with false news stories, designed to undermine morale and hasten surrender.19

Nevertheless, most daytime programmes from Luxembourg featured Glenn Miller, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, but the popular hit tune that third week of December 1944 was ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. The song had come from the motion picture Hollywood Canteen, starring Bette Davis, Joan Leslie and Joan Crawford, which was playing to GIs at R and R camps throughout the region. The 115th Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Gun Battalion found themselves protecting the Junglinster site from the Luftwaffe, marvelling at the incongruities of manning their guns one moment, then wining and dining in ‘any number of movie houses, cafes, night clubs a fellow could wish to visit. It was incredible … In all our travels we had never experienced anything like Luxembourg. It was a beautiful city, relatively untouched by war. Its people were friendly, clean, well dressed and, best of all, many could speak English. It was the closest thing to the States we’d seen.’20

Luxembourg itself had military origins. Often known as the ‘Gibraltar of the north’, from the castle that evolved from Roman days, its name derived from Old German Lucilinburhuc, meaning the ‘Little Fortress’, whose remains still overlook the Alzette river today. The city and other big towns nearby were popular with soldiers, where US-issued cigarettes sold for up to $40 a carton (ten packs) on the black market, or could be traded for other things, principally sex and hard booze. The weekly ration for each soldier was seven packs; he could supplement this by buying more in the PX, at five cents a pack, which he could sell on at $2.40 to $4 on the black market.21 A five-gallon jerrycan of fuel could fetch 5,000 French francs. Almost anything could be traded, as Newsweekreported in January 1945: ‘Gasoline trucks are sometimes hijacked (by bands of outlaws) but if the drivers are cooperative they simply drive their trucks into underground garages, sell 1,000 gallons of gasoline for $5,000 or sell the truck as well and pocket another $1,000.’22 The trucks were then reported as ‘stolen’ or ‘requisitioned by another unit’. Patton’s Third Army was notorious for requisitioning fuel (at gunpoint on occasion) from neighbouring friendly forces. The theft of military vehicles reached such proportions that drivers were obliged to remove the rotor arm from the distributor when leaving their vehicles unattended.

Organised crime is clever and never far from a profit: a black market speciality of rotor arms for different military vehicles, principally jeeps and the 6 × 6 ‘Jimmies’ we met on the Red Ball Express developed, where the items sold for $40 apiece.23 Cigarette theft reached such proportions that in one thirty-day period only eleven million out of seventy-seven million packs of cigarettes destined for US troops in France, Belgium and Luxembourg reached their destination – prompting Eisenhower (himself a chain-smoker on sixty a day) to order an immediate investigation.24Cigarettes have remained a hard currency in war, and during the mid-1990s Bosnian war swirling around Sarajevo I witnessed the price of a pack Marlboros climbing to an astronomical $200 on the local black market, presenting many temptations to UN and NATO peacekeeping troops. In 1944 Luxembourg, Staff Sergeant Paul F. Jenkins, a Sherman commander with the 707th Tank Battalion, recalled bribing a waiter, ‘you could get all kinds of things: I’d give a bartender two packs of cigarettes (usually Lucky Strikes) and ask, “Where can I get a good steak?” We went back in the kitchen; they had steaks stacked up that high. It was all from horse, but they was steaks. The only thing was, the meat was a little bit coarser than what beef was, but it was good. Anything would be good after C-rations.’25

Yet one of the problems was, as Jenkins observed, ‘we couldn’t tell a German from a Luxembourger’. There were two official languages, German and French, but some locals spoke their own Germanisch dialect, Letzeburger. Although the state of Luxembourg, created in 1839 and confirmed as independent in 1867, had remained neutral, it endured invasion and a cruel occupation after May 1940; more than 5,000 of its 300,000 citizens would die in the war. Appropriately, one of the liberators of Luxembourg City on 10 September 1944 was Grand Duke Jean, heir to the Duchy and a tank troop commander in the Irish Guards. He had escaped in 1940, joined the British army as a private, gained a commission and had fought through Normandy. His wartime adventures helped to cement his legitimacy as a future ruler of Luxembourg. The Germans had absorbed the state into the Reich and forcibly conscripted around 5 per cent of the population into the Wehrmacht, hence American concerns. In fact, there was no love lost, for the native language was suppressed, French-sounding names altered, the name Luxembourg ceased to exist, being renamed Gau Moselland (Mosel Province), and German law imposed.26 The Americans assumed there would be a degree of leakage of their own dispositions to the Germans, but this outflow of information went both ways: the neighbourhood knew something was afoot. On 14 December, Captain Franklin Anderson of the 4th Division encountered a crowd of agitated civilians over the border, in St Vith; a local explained in English, ‘They think the Germans are going to be back here soon … [they] always come through the Ardennes. Now there is activity, noise … over to the east, and [these people] are worried.’27

When on 15 December, at 4th Division headquarters, the G-2, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry F. Hansen, passed on news from VIII Corps of ‘large German formations in Bitburg’, fearing a raid on Bradley’s headquarters in the centre of Luxembourg City, General Barton was savvy enough to order all his men in rest centres back to their posts. This made 4th Division probably the best-prepared US formation before the attack – but even Barton hadn’t anticipated a major offensive, and allowed Hansen, his G-2, to depart on a long-planned leave. The following morning, in 4th Division’s headquarters log, the entry for 09.00 a.m., 16 December, read ‘G-2 left Command Post for a three-day pass to civilisation’. We may speculate as to Hansen’s actual destination, but wherever it was, he never got there – for Herbstnebel was already under way.28

John A. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division (the ‘Phantom Nine’), were fairly new to France, having shipped over on the Queen Mary and landed on 25 September (D+111). The first elements began operations on 23 October, but the entire division would not be committed in their three brigade-sized Combat Commands until the Bulge began. It was only on 10 December that Combat Command ‘A’ (CCA), including the 60th Armored Infantry Battalion, 19th Tank Battalion and 3rd Field Artillery Battalion, was assigned its own sector of the front, north of 4th Division. Lieutenant-Colonel George Ruhlen, commanding the 3rd FA Battalion, remembered that his guns had ‘fired day after day on German transport columns in the Siegfried Line, as well as troop concentrations around Echternach … Several times my observers reported the visits of German officers in black leather coats to the bunkers of the Western Wall. We ourselves had picked up three Polish forced labourers and several German runaways who had swum the Sauer to surrender to us. They reported that a gun or tank was hidden under almost every large haystack or barn in the Rhineland, and that fresh German divisions crossed the Rhine almost every night.’29 Also in CCA was Donald H. Bein, nineteen-year-old PFC who crewed a 57mm gun. In the days before the Bulge, he remembered that every night, between 10.00 and 11.00 p.m., a small German reconnaissance plane flew over his unit’s positions around Luxembourg. Bein reckoned, as the darkened aircraft flew at low altitude, that it was trying to pick out American positions by their lights. ‘We called him “Bed Check Charlie”.’30

Even more recent arrivals into Middleton’s VIII Corps were the ‘Golden Lions’, the nickname adopted by Major-General Alan W. Jones’s 106th Division, after their shoulder patch. They were one of the last conscript formations, activated at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on 15 March 1943, and trained at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, through the spring and summer. Landing on French soil in late November, they deployed straight into the Ardennes from 10 December. Few had ever fired a shot in anger and were even newer to combat than Lauer’s greenhorn 99th Division. Some were hopelessly ill-prepared, as a 2nd Division captain recalled when he was asked by a Golden Lions officer for useful combat tips. Noting the Golden Lions GIs toted unloaded rifles, the green officer was told to get ammunition distributed to his men. ‘But I don’t have orders to distribute any ammunition’ was the puzzled response. ‘Well, I can tell you from recent experience the soldiers opposite have loaded weapons and know how to use them, whether or not they’ve been given an order to load,’ the veteran replied.31 With or without ammunition, the 106th would have been heartened as a departing Indianhead of the 2nd Division shouted across to an incoming Golden Lion, ‘Lucky guys! You’re coming into a rest camp!’32 Yet, over their first few nights at the front, Jones’s outposts reported ‘the sound of vehicles all along the front after dark – vehicles, barking dogs, motors’, while a wounded prisoner warned of a ‘large-scale offensive, employing searchlights against the clouds to simulate moonlight’, but in neither case did the 106th’s G-2, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert P. Stout, hurry this intelligence up to VIII Corps.33

By contrast, General ‘Dutch’ Cota’s 28th, originally Pennsylvania National Guard volunteers, were tough veterans who had arrived in France in July, fought through Normandy at a cost of 2,000 casualties, and – like Barton’s 4th – lost far more in the ‘Green Hell’ of the Hürtgen, for Cota 6,184 during a month. These included 614 killed, 2,605 wounded, 855 missing, 245 captured and 1,865 non-battle losses – more than 750 of which were caused by trench foot. Cota’s leadership would prove critical – he himself had been the highest ranking officer on Omaha Beach during D-Day and had rallied many disorganised and scared soldiers and got them off the shingle. His reward was a Distinguished Service Cross and command of the 28th, replacing Major-General Lloyd D. Brown who had been relieved and demoted for his ‘lack of drive’.

December found his formation still recovering from its wounds, absorbing several thousand replacements and defending a twenty-five-mile stretch of the Luxembourg–German border. He put his command post in Wiltz, about twelve miles from the forward lines. As his frontage was too great for a continuous line of resistance, Cota had to place all three of his infantry regiments in the line facing east to the Our river (the actual frontier with Germany). They manned company-sized strongpoints to control the local road network, each based in one of the numerous small villages that dotted the landscape. With so many troops forward, Cota had only a single battalion squirrelled away as his reserve, but putting his men in houses allowed units to rotate soldiers into shelter for rest, minimising exposure to the tough, wintry weather.

Cota’s men received much valuable information offered by two plucky Luxembourgers. Marguerite Linden-Meier was one of several civilians seized by a German patrol from US-occupied territory, which had crept over the frontier seeking knowledge of local American dispositions. After questioning by the Wehrmacht and Gestapo about their US Army opponents, then put to work on a German farm, Linden-Meier managed to escape and drift back through the troops gathering for Herbstnebel, crossing the lines with the help of the local underground, and reported what she had seen to the American garrison in Vianden. She detailed ‘tanks and troops assembled near the border and a German soldier who had proclaimed “By Christmas we’ll be in Paris again’’.’34

More specific intelligence came from another Luxembourg lady, Elise Delé, normally resident in the German-occupied border hamlet of Bivels, but a temporary refugee in US-liberated Vianden, less than two miles to the south. Although the border zone was evacuated and all civilian movement restricted, the front was so thinly held that individuals could freely cross it, especially at night. She had been stopped by the Wehrmacht while crossing the lines to collect clothes from her old home, and taken to Bitburg for questioning. Soon left alone, she simply left town and like Linden-Meier began walking back to the safety of Vianden.

Moving cautiously, she noticed a sharp increase in military traffic, guns and trucks, piles of military equipment under the trees, including ‘rows of small boats’, and concentrations of troops, some of whom she recognised, from their black collar patches, as belonging to the SS. On the morning of 14 December, two men from the underground rescued her. When she told them what she had seen, they took her straight to Vianden’s Hôtel Heintz, where the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon of Cota’s 109th Infantry Regiment was billeted. Each US infantry regiment maintained an I&R platoon as its eyes and ears; they were a group of twenty-eight men, equipped with seven jeeps crewed by four men each, acting as scouts when in the advance, and intelligence- gathering from a fixed position when static, as in December 1944. The Americans in Vianden showed much interest in Elise Delé’s story, and took her to Diekirch for more questioning. From there she was taken to VIII Corps HQ in Bastogne, while a report was transmitted to Dickson’s staff at US First Army in Spa. But ‘Monk’ Dickson was not there – he had departed for a long-delayed visit to Paris.

The night after Elise Delé’s arrival in Diekirch, another special guest followed her into town. Ralph Boettcher, a twenty-three-year-old staff sergeant from Illinois, seconded to Civil Affairs in Ettelbrück, was chosen to chauffeur the glamorous arrival around town in a 1939 deluxe model Packard. He drove her to a special party thrown in a Diekirch hotel for men of the 28th Division, and there the sultry Marlene Dietrich and her USO Troupe put on a two-hour Christmas variety show for the boys. During the coming days of battle, Boettcher and his friends would never forget her alluring attire as she sang and danced, flashing her stockinged legs. The following day she was due to perform again for the 99th Division further north in Honsfeld, an appointment that her country of birth managed to cancel.35

Many historians have alleged that Colonel ‘Monk’ Dickson was ‘sent’, or ‘banished’ to Paris for a rest, or even ‘sidelined, to remove a troublesome character’, and allude to a ‘hard drinking’ habit or ‘exhaustion’. The truth was more mundane. Dickson’s forty-seventh birthday occurred on 18 December and, having worked solidly at First Army headquarters since landing in France, he was overdue a well-earned break. Unfortunately, electing to head for the French capital shortly after issuing his alarmist 10 December prediction somewhat undermines Dickson’s case that he was convinced the Germans were about to attack – he simply wouldn’t have left his post at such a vital time. Be that as it may, Linden-Meier’s warning appears to have been overlooked, while the report of Elise Delé’s adventures was received at the First Army G-2 office just before midnight on 14 December; and there, sadly, it stayed.36

Also bound for Paris, and on the same wintry afternoon that found Marlene Dietrich preparing to perform in Diekirch, a single-engined Noordwyn C-64 Norseman, a small, rugged Canadian-designed aircraft, rose from the ground at RAF Twinwood Farm on the outskirts of Bedford, England. The weather had been deteriorating and the pilot, Flying Officer John R.S. Morgan of the RAF, and his passengers, Lieutenant-Colonel Norman F. Baessell, and a forty-year-old major in the United States Army Air Force who would be awarded a Bronze Star, were in two minds whether to fly or not. A pressing engagement at the Olympia music hall in the French capital persuaded the officers that they ought not to delay and the trio departed in the murk. The major’s friend, Don Haynes, waved the trio off from the warmth of his staff car, but the Norseman never arrived for the morale-boosting concert Major Glenn Miller was about to stage for Allied troops. That was the last time anyone saw the world-famous bandleader alive.37

Outside the towns and villages, the Ardennes region has changed little since 1944, and this part of the battlefield, overlooking the Our, is no exception. The south-flowing river, shallow and around forty feet wide, is flanked by high-sided banks which were extremely challenging for tank drivers and still make a vehicular approach difficult; there is no natural harbour area along the water’s edge. On 13 December, Cota’s centre regiment, the 110th Infantry under Colonel Hurley E. Fuller, established their headquarters in the Hôtel Claravallis in Clervaux. Most of his men occupied company-sized positions in the villages that dotted the ridgeline west of the Our, along the ancient north–south road connecting St Vith with Diekirch, dubbed the ‘Skyline Drive’ (after the famous route built through the Shenandoah National Park by the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corps a decade earlier). To say that Fuller’s front was ‘extended’ would be an understatement: a later observer wrote, ‘A man in a jeep could drive along Skyline Drive for four miles between strongpoints without encountering any of Fuller’s troops’.38 Yet, it is important to remember that terrain and numbers prevented both sides from maintaining a continuous front line.

This was no reflection on the briar pipe-smoking fifty-year-old colonel, a seasoned veteran of the Argonne who knew his own mind and had a reputation for outspokenness; he was simply making the best of the situation with the forces at his disposal. Overlooking the river itself, each battalion maintained five outposts occupied during daylight hours. In October, Chicagoan Captain Robert E. Merriam was working as a US Army Historian and drove along the Skyline Drive, writing, ‘We were riding along the top of a huge ridge, silhouetted in plain view of an enemy no more than eight hundred yards away, guns of the West Wall supposedly bristling behind every bush, and nothing happened … We left the ridge road and wound our way into the valley along a narrow secondary road which twisted and turned its way through the thickly wooded hills until it came to a beautiful resort town called Clerf [Clervaux]. There, eight miles behind the so-called front line … [was] a rest centre, where the men frolicked, drank beer, flirted with the pretty Luxembourg girls, seduced them when they could, and relaxed from the worries of war.’39

Like Rudder’s 109th Regiment to the south, many in Fuller’s battalions had yet to see a German, or fire a shot in anger, but would soon have to live up to their unit motto ‘Cuisque devotis est vis regimenti’ (‘The devotion of everyone makes the strength of the regiment’). Pennsylvanian PFC John F. Peters was one of those who already had. Enlisting into the state National Guard in February 1941 before his country was at war, he had started out as a bandsman. When training later on England’s Salisbury Plain, the twenty-five-year-old found himself assigned to Company ‘E’ of the 110th Infantry Regiment, and arrived in time for the Hürtgen campaign. He survived and was jubilant at moving to Clervaux on 13 November, being told this was the tame part of the front; even so, Peters recalled the oddity of seeing no civilians during his time at the front.40

To integrate all the replacements, 110th Infantry endeavoured to train while occupying and holding their elongated front. To make matters worse, Fuller was short-handed as his 3rd Battalion had been taken by ‘Dutch’ Cota as the divisional reserve. Fuller had recently arrived in the ‘Bloody Bucket’ Division, having had a run-in with his superiors in 2nd Division for speaking his mind and had been relieved. The 110th Infantry was his second chance: even though he knew he was holding the longest front with the fewest resources, but he wasn’t going to complain. It was Middleton who had intervened to find another regiment for Fuller. In April 1918 Captain Troy Middleton had taken over his first company in the 4th Ivy Division from a certain Captain Hurley Fuller, ‘a cantankerous fellow, but a good fighter’ as the future VIII Corps commander remembered of the future 110th Infantry’s colonel.41 Though by all accounts a grouchy character who said exactly what he thought (a trait that not infrequently leads to career suicide), Fuller was a natural pugilist, and pitched right into what was to become one of the Bulge’s hottest spots.

Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel B. Strickler, who took over as XO of the regiment on 10 December, remembered, ‘I found that the regiment was holding a defensive line of about fifteen miles … It was supposed to be a quiet sector as no aggressive fighting by either side had taken place in that area, since the initial push to the German border in September. Most of the officers of the regiment were replacements and likewise the majority of the men were reinforcements having been sent to the regiment after the gruelling battle in the Hürtgen Forest during November’.42 That awful combat in the forest had battered each of the Bloody Bucket’s units: even the Official Historian of the Bulge noted its ‘regiments were in pitiable condition’ immediately after the campaign.43

As Fuller’s two infantry battalions, plus regimental staff, totalling perhaps 2,000 would have to contend with the better part of three German divisions, amounting to eighteen battalions, or about 30,000 including other divisional troops, it was thus better that they had no foreknowledge of the coming struggle, faced as they were with well-nigh impossible odds.

Chicagoan Ed Uzemack of the 110th Infantry remembered the third week of December beginning quietly. He watched the Germans opposite his position ‘doing pretty much what we were on our side of the river, hanging out personal laundry to dry’.44 Some noted ‘at twilight German women being smuggled into the bunkers and pillboxes of the Siegfried Line for a night of love’, while the German observers could watch the GIs queue up in line for chow.45 The Pennsylvanians of the 28th were focused more on warmth than combat, and generally disinclined to pester the Germans with patrols, hoping their opposite numbers would do the same.46 In the little town of Hosingen, Lieutenant Thomas J. Flynn, XO of Company ‘K’ of the 110th, recalled hearing engine noises, ‘like the motorcycles used by couriers’, from the distant German lines across the River Our. Puzzled, he told his men to ‘stay alert’.47 Some of the more experienced GIs ‘sensed’ something was wrong. Joe Soya, a company commander in the US 109th Infantry Regiment of Cota’s 28th, reported he was ‘constantly being hit by reconnaissance patrols and they will not fight … they disappear the minute you try to make contact with [i.e. fire at] them’. Furthermore, the same captain observed, ‘all night long, the minute it gets dark – they start shooting [to cover] the rumble of heavy equipment – tanks moving around in position and what not … something is going on.’

His battalion commander dismissed these concerns with the demeaning retort, ‘are you getting nervous?’ To this the younger officer responded, ‘Look, Colonel, I’ve been in this damn outfit since St Lô. I’ve been a rifle company commander in combat in the beachhead … so don’t tell me I’m getting nervous. I’m just trying to tell you something that should be reported back.’ The response – which was echoing from many a higher commander and G-2s across the front – was: ‘It can’t be, this is a quiet area.’48

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